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Fallen Arecibo Observatory telescope won't be rebuilt despite scientists' hopes

The famous radio telescope that fell to the ground in Puerto Rico in 2020 won't be rebuilt, but a new education facility will open there the following year.

The enormous radio dish at the Arecibo Observatory was a unique structure since it played a significant role in three distinct scientific disciplines: planetary radar, radio astronomy, and atmospheric investigations.

The telescope's viewing apparatus was suspended from a web-like platform that was positioned over a huge dish that was 1,000 feet (305 meters) wide when it was first used in 1963. However, the cables holding up that platform fell out in December 2020, causing the equipment to crash through the sensitive dish and destroy the telescope.

Currently, the site's owner, the National Science Foundation (NSF), has decided that Arecibo Observatory won't be receiving any new telescopes to make up for the loss despite requests from scientists. A 40-foot (12 m) radio dish and a lidar system, two devices still in use at the observatory, are not covered by the new education project's long-term funding.

Instead, the NSF plans to expand on the observatory's history as a significant educational institution in Puerto Rico by renovating the location into a Centre for STEM education, scheduled to open in 2023. (opens in new tab). The observatory also houses the 1997-founded Angel Ramos Foundation Science and Visitor Center.

Arecibo Observatory before the collapse

"A new multifunctional, world-class educational facility at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico is being sought after by the U.S. National Science Foundation with the intention of serving as a hub for STEM teaching and outreach," officials wrote in a statement. "The Centre would undertake new STEM programmes and initiatives in addition to expanding upon existing education and outreach possibilities now in place at the Arecibo Observatory location."

The Arecibo science facilities are barely mentioned in the statement, but it does mention that groups seeking financing to use current instruments or create new ones "may submit applications that are complementary to the scope of the new Centre."

The National Science Foundation (NSF) aims to invest 5 million dollars over a five-year period, according to the programme solicitation(opens in new tab) for the new science centre.

The NSF also plans to award the observatory a five-year maintenance contract worth at least $1 million every year, according to the Associated Press(opens in new tab). Méndez referred to that as being sufficient to keep the lights on but lacking a budget to fund research.

Even though the observatory escaped Hurricane Maria with little damage, the telescope's problems started that year. A series of earthquakes that shook the island in early 2020 forced the observatory to temporarily close. However, the facility appeared to be alright for a while.

That changed in August when one of the substantial cables holding up the 900-ton platform came loose, plummeted through the dish, and gashed the delicate panels. Engineers nevertheless came up with a repair strategy and declared that everything was in order.

However, a second cable collapsed in November, right before those repairs were supposed to start. Engineers assessed the condition and concluded that the telescope was unsafely unstable to repair, so NSF made the decision to decommission the device. However, gravity prevailed, and the telescope collapsed early on December 1, 2020.

Since then, experts have demanded that the telescope be restored or that a new, more advanced device be constructed there in its stead. Instead, the Arecibo Telescope will be remembered most for its decades of recorded data.

Edited by: Ankit Biswas. ( LinkedIn )

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